Mechanical ventilation with high peak inspiratory pressure and large tidal volume (VT) produces permeability pulmonary edema. Whether it is mean or peak inspiratory pressure (i.e., mean or end-inspiratory volume) that is the major determinant of ventilation-induced lung injury is unsettled. Rats were ventilated with increasing tidal volumes starting from different degrees of FRC that were set by increasing end-expiratory pressure during positive-pressure ventilation. Pulmonary edema was assessed by the measurement of extravascular lung water content. The importance of permeability alterations was evaluated by measurement of dry lung weight and determination of albumin distribution space. Pulmonary edema with permeability alterations occurred regardless of the value of positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP), provided the increase in VT was large enough. Similarly, edema occurred even during normal VT ventilation provided the increase in PEEP was large enough. Furthermore, moderate increases in VT or PEEP that were innocuous when applied alone, produced edema when combined. The effect of PEEP was not the consequence of raised airway pressure but of the increase in FRC since similar observations were made in animals ventilated with negative inspiratory pressure. However, although permeability alterations were similar, edema was less marked in animals ventilated with PEEP than in those ventilated with zero end-expiratory pressure (ZEEP) with the same end-inspiratory pressure. This "beneficial" effect of PEEP was probably the consequence of hemodynamic alterations. Indeed, infusion of dopamine to correct the drop in systemic arterial pressure that occurred during PEEP ventilation resulted in a significant increase in pulmonary edema. In conclusion, rather than VT or FRC value, the end-inspiratory volume is probably the main determinant of ventilation-induced edema. Hemodynamic status plays an important role in modulating the amount of edema during lung overinflation but does not fundamentally modify the characteristics of this edema which is consistently associated with major permeability alterations. These results may be relevant for ventilatory strategies during acute respiratory failure.